Do Not Drive Beyond Your Headlights

I’ve heard stories where organizations have “tried Agile” and the results were so bad that they’ll never make that mistake again. In some of these stories the blame is laid at the feet of bad coaches. In some it’s blamed on lack of coaching. In some, the blame is placed on clients who aren’t ready for Agile . If blame is to be lodged, then any of these will do.

The more interesting question, to my mind, is how can we achieve a better result. For that, we need to dig deeper into the root causes rather than stopping with blame allocation.

  • Did the coach or organization have limited understanding of Agile software development?
  • Did they do things that are counter to Agile software development?
  • Did they do the right things, but not do them well?
  • Could they tell the difference between these two?
  • Could they tell, along the way, whether they were improving or diminishing their ability to get “the job” done?

Certainly, a good and experienced coach can help them see sooner and more subtly whether things are helping or hurting. That’s part of “seeing the invisible stuff.” If you’re trying an “all at once” transition, that help is imperative. Why?

Consider an analogy with driving at night. The old adage is “Do not drive beyond your headlights.” At any moment, your headlights could reveal something that you want to avoid. In the distance between where you are and the limit of illumination, you need to be able to react to that something. If you’re going too fast, you won’t have time to react within that distance, and you’ll likely hit whatever you’d rather avoid.

Knowledge and experience help you to observe. They direct your observations to the right things, and they help you observe more subtle nuances of these things. In that respect, they’re like better headlights, and they allow you to go faster, safely.

So, should you find a knowledgeable and experienced coach and “bet the farm” on a successful Agile transition? I wouldn’t. Even with good references, I would be loathe to put my organization at risk depending on the skill of an outsider. And even with a good coach, my organization has to learn to do the right things well.

Instead, I’d look for a coach who, in addition to coaching my organization, coaches me in making transitions—especially this particular type of transition. I’d want them to improve my ability to see where I’m going, not just take their word that everything is OK. And while I’m learning that, I might want to start making the changes a little more gradually such that I don’t put my organization at risk while I’m learning how to make this transition.

And since that’s how I’d want to approach an Agile transition if it were my organization, that’s how I coach.

One Reply to “Do Not Drive Beyond Your Headlights”

  1. George,

    A thoughtful post. Thank you.

    For some reason I’ve been mulling over the coaching concept or construct recently.

    I suspect most drivers don’t really know if they are over-driving their lights until they find out they are through negative experience. I have never empirically tested my stopping distances. I don’t think I’m in the minority. Thus I think the metaphor also brings up the notion of unconscious incompetence that probably deserves mention in a discussion of Agile failures.

    I think you’re suggesting that an important activity in a coaching engagement is getting a shared understanding about what is and isn’t currently illuminated and how to increase that.

    With respect to your root causes, I think there are facile answers to at least some of them.

    Isn’t it true that all organizations and coaches have limited understandings of Agile software development? At least it’s true for my understanding of “understanding.” I wonder if the cause is more incongruent or conflicting understandings.

    My attempt at expressing a root cause for Agile adoption failures, not having experienced one myself (I guess that makes me a pundit 😉 would be that failures occur due to a lack of shared understanding about the scope of change and the timeframe needed for adoption to become self-sustaining.


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